Noah Chiet and Tony Gudell on playing Jason and Mendel in Ganymede Arts’ Falsettos
I’ve seen Noah Chiet perform in several productions at Musical Theater Center, and I knew that if he was given the chance to play a lead role in a musical, he would have the audience and critics applauding. So, it didn’t surprise me that Tom Avila, a local reviewer for MetroWeekly raved, “… huge applause must go to Chiet. An incredibly mature performer at a very young age, Chiet displays a brilliant comic timing. He often – very rightly – steals the show”.
The psychiatrist Mendel is not an easy role. If you play him over-the-top, he becomes a one-dimensional clown. By selecting veteran actor Tony Gudell to play Mendel, director Jeffrey Johnson received a multi-layered, heart-warming, funny, intelligent, and loving performance. For me, Noah and Tony are the heart of Ganymede Arts’ intimate production. I asked them to talk about their roles, working with Jeffrey and the other members of the cast, and the power of the show to move a new generation of theatregoers.
Noah Chiet (Jason)
Joel: Noah, introduce yourself to my readers.
Noah: Hi! I am Noah Chiet. Let me just start out by saying this is my first interview, and I’m very excited. I am a 4 foot 9, 12-year-old boy who LOVES to perform. I enjoy acting, dancing, singing, drawing, and hanging out with my friends in my spare time. I have one brother and a sister, a dog, and three cats. I am in the 7th grade at A. Mario Loiederman Magnet Middle School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
Joel: What made you want to play Jason?
Noah: Well, being that Jason is the only “kid” in the show… I kind of had to play him! But I could also relate to the experience he is going through, (not because his parents are getting divorced, or his father is gay) but because he is having his Bar-Mitzvah! And I too plan to have one in the near future.
Joel: Since you mentioned your Bar-Mitzvah, are your parents driving you crazy about it, like Jason’s parents do in the show?
Noah: Only a little bit! I am actually a Hebrew school drop-out so we have to rent a Rabbi! I’m really excited to have my Bar–Mitzvah after being in this show and 13 at The Musical Theater Center. I am actually having a very non-traditional Bar-Mitzvah.
This may be offensive to some Jewish people, but I am going to skip all the boring stuff, and get to the juicy part! This is celebrating 13 years of my life with my amazing friends and saying some Hebrew! (like Jason).
Joel: What is Falsettos about from Jason’s point of view?
Noah: From Jason’s point of view, Falsettos is basically a story of a boy’s screwed-up life – his parents get divorced, his father announces he is gay and falls in love with a younger man, and everyone is driving him nuts about his Bar-Mitzvah! All Jason wants is a normal family.
Joel: Is Jason anything like you and does his situation in any way reflect your family life?
Noah: I don’t totally relate to Jason. My family and my parents are really close. Not that it’s not a little wacky at times! But my parents do drive me nuts! Almost all of my expressions and emotions on stage come from my life. For example in the 2nd act when I roll my eyes a lot, and make weird faces – that’s all me. When we are at the hospital with Whizzer, I think of when my grandma was sick and passed away in the hospital. I try to re-live that experience in my head, while I’m on stage at the same time, so as you can see, a lot of “me” is put into my performance of Jason.
Joel: Let’s talk about working with director Jeffrey Johnson.
Noah: Let me just say that I cannot believe what an amazing job Jeffrey did at directing a show this complicated. He also managed to play the lead role of Marvin! While doing these two jobs – directing and acting – Jeffrey was aware of my experience acting in productions at Musical Theater Center (‘MTC’) and at school, so he worked closely with me the first few weeks. He gave me instructions for the blocking, suggested gestures, reactions and dancing steps, and then allowed me to develop my performance of Jason. We spent most of our rehearsal time working through the actual music, which was a big challenge for me, the entire cast, and our musical director Christopher Wingert.
Joel: Was it difficult for you to deal with the characters and issues in this show – a father who is gay and his partner Whizzer who is dying of AIDS?
Noah: Well, my family’s really open, so I deal with adult stuff every day, so it wasn’t a problem for me. I also grew up with siblings a lot older than me – so I matured a lot faster. When I meet a person, I don’t judge them and label them if there gay, lesbian, black, white, Chinese, green, red, purple, or anything! It only matters what’s on the inside!
Joel: Did Jeffrey and other cast members tell you about what the the AIDS crises was like at the time of the show?
Noah: The cast didn’t really tell me anything, but this was the time period when my parents were in high school – so they filled me in. I didn’t realize how many people this horrible thing affected, and I am more aware now. I feel sad thinking about how many people were lost….
Joel: You and Tony Gudell – who plays Mendel the ‘family’ psychiatrist – have great chemistry in the show.
Noah: Thanks! When we met at the first rehearsal, I knew instantly we were going to have a fun time! He is definitely a little bit goofy like Mendel!
Joel: What do you like best about working with Tony?
Noah: He is super funny, caring, and a cool guy! He also didn’t treat me like a little kid, but like an adult. He has an AMAZING voice, but could use a little work on dancing! Ha hah – just kidding! He is super funny, caring, and a cool guy! He also didn’t treat me like a little kid, but like an adult. He has an AMAZING voice, but could use a little work on his dancing! Hah Hah – just kidding!
Joel: Is there anything about Lisa Carrier Baker – who plays your mother Trina in the show – that reminds you of your own mother?
Noah: She definitely reminds me of my Mom. Throughout the whole show, she is always concerned about my happiness. She is also a very warm and loving person! She only gets on my nerves a little! I pretty much treat Trina in the show, how I treat my mother! A feeling of needing to take care of her at times, loving her so much, and getting pissed of every once in a while! I love you Mom!
Joel: The first song you sing in March of the Falsettos is ”My Father’s a Homo”.
Noah: It takes place at Jason’s school talent show. Jason is distracted and goes into a tangent about his “homo” father! He is saying that he is scared the chromosomes will pass on to him, and he too will be a “homo”! And of course his Mother’s not thrilled at all!
Joel: Why do you think Jason likes Mendel so much?
Noah: Because Mendel is the only straight man Jason’s seen in a long time! He sees that his Mom is depressed and needs someone to love, so Jason sets the two up. Jason doesn’t really like Mendel, he just is using him to make sure Trina is loved and taken care of. But in the Second Act, their relationship grows, and they become more like two best friends.
Joel: At the end of March of the Falsettos Marvin sings “Father to Son”. It’s an emotional ending to a meshuganah first act. How have Jason and Marvin changed?
Noah: Well Jason is definitely more mature. He realizes that he has a father who loves him very much, and accepts the fact he is gay. Marvin realizes he has made some bad decisions and choices, and he doesn’t want Jason’s life to end up like his – a mess. At this point, Marvin and Whizzer are not together, so Marvin is focused on Jason, and has more time to be a Dad.
Joel: Why does Jason love Whizzer so much, and do you think Marvin is jealous?
Noah: Jason loves Whizzer because he’s cool, young, athletic, and everything his father isn’t. It definitely shows that Marvin is jealous in the song “This Has Better Come To a Stop”. Whizzer is also more of a father to Jason, like when he teaches him how to play chess, and Whizzer always comes to his baseball games!
Joel: “The Miracle of Judaism” sets up what you are about to go through in Falsettoland, and is reprised by you at the end of the show.
Noah: The first time I sing it I am talking about which girls I should invite to my Bar-Mitzvah, the ones that would want to come – I don’t want! I want the cool ones. The ones who wear make-up, smoke, and show their butts! Like any boy, I want the Hot Chicks! And for a goofy Jewish boy like Jason, that would be the ‘Miracle of Judaism!’
The second time I sing the song is a very different story. Jason has matured and is now praying and begging God to help Whizzer get better and survive. He is very emotional in this song, and is no longer selfish.
Joel: ‘Everyone Hates His Parents” is a funny song in the Second Act and comes after a fight.
Noah: Yes! This song is right after the big fight. Jason is sick and tired of all the bickering between his parents. Mendel sees this, and tries to cheer him up. He explains that “Everyone Hates his Parents” and that he will get over it! It turns into this “showy” song, and it’s a lot of fun!
Joel: What’s it like performing this song with Tony?
Noah: It’s a Blast! It is so much fun to sing it with him, and we are both just both ourselves! This song also has so much action and energy. It’s easy and laid back. It’s also really a place where my character shows off!
Joel: Jason goes through a lot of emotional hell in the show. How do you keep it together as an actor? It can’t be easy.
Noah: I have been through a lot of emotional things in my 12 years. I pull from my personal experiences and use them to my advantage. It’s just the roller coaster of life, and I definitely ride it in this show.
Joel: What scene is the most emotional scene for you to watch?
Noah: By far, the last scene when we are at Whizzer’s funeral. I just remember when I was at my grandma’s funeral, and I get this vision, and I just break down in tears. I just get so attached to Whizzer during the show, and it’s just horrible to see what this disease can do to someone. Especially someone you really love.
Joel: You have been trained at Musical Theater Center (‘MTC’), and two of your instructors there are also in this show with you.
Noah: Where do I begin? I have been at MTC for several years, and have known Lisa (Trina) and Tammy (Cordelia) for a while now, but never on this level. I’ve really gotten to know them and they are both fantastic people. They are not just my teachers, but my peers, or my co-actors as you “professionals” put it! They have taught me so much, being in classes, Upbeat Unlimited, and shows. Without Lisa, the one who referred me for this opportunity – I wouldn’t even be answering these questions! Thank you guys! Love you! It’s going to be weird when I’m back at MTC this fall and they are once again my teachers!
Joel: So after Lisa recommended you for the role, you had to audition for the role of Jason. Tell us about that audition.
Noah: At my audition, I sang the song “Let it Be” by the Beatles. Ever since they became one of my favorite bands, this song has always had a soft spot in my heart. Also whenever I perform this song, I like to dedicate it to my Dad, since he turned me on to his love of the Beatles. I knew I got the role when Jeffrey (the amazing director) called me at my house. My Dad answered the phone, and was trying to keep me from knowing it was Jeffrey calling. When I saw the smirk on my Dad’s face, I knew something good was happening.
Joel: Falsettos deals with one big extended family of friends. Do you feel like you and the cast are a family?
Noah: OMG! We are like one big family! We’ve spent so much time together and we all have gotten to bond together! I can’t imagine what life will be like without them after the show’s over! Somehow I think we will always be in touch, and maybe we will get to perform together again! Definitely facebook buddies!
Joel: Your parents have been schlepping you to classes and rehearsals at MTC for years. What advice did they give you about playing Jason and your performance?
Noah: My Mom drives me everywhere! Without her none of this would be possible. My Mom is always my driving force, and always encourages me to audition for everything! And my Dad is so caring, and, well, pays for everything! They always support me in everything I do. They told me to put myself in Jason’s shoes and become him when I walk onstage! I love you guys!
Joel: How are your friends reacting to you appearing in this “non-traditional” musical?
Noah: The other day, I came into school, and I saw the Falsettos postcards everywhere! Everyone is like “OMG! Noah I saw you in the Washington Post! I want to see your show!” I feel like a movie star! I think some of them are oblivious to the fact that it’s a show about an adult topic. But others are very interested and want to come.
Joel: Why did he make you wear a yarmulke during the entire show when no one else wore one during the Bar-Mitzvah scene?
Noah: You probably noticed that each character had a blue accent to their costumes. On opening night when Jeffrey saw that I didn’t have blue on me in the 1st act, he told me to wear the yarmulke. Also the costumer Dennis Kitmore created the yarmulke from fabric, so I want to thank him. It means a lot to me!
Joel: What’s next for you after Falsettos?
Noah: I am playing Benny Southstreet in MTC’s production of Guys and Dolls. I’m really excited about playing that role. I also just auditioned for my school show called And a Child Shall Lead. I will keep you informed on what part I get. There’s always Upbeat Unlimited at MTC, which performs around the area!
Joel: Why should your friends and theatergoers of all ages come to see Falsettos, and what do you want them to take home with them after seeing the show?
Noah: Everyone should come see Falsettos! not just to see me, but to see all these amazing people. Like Jeffrey said, the shows not really about gay stuff, my Bar-Mitzvah, or AIDS – it’s about family. Even though this show takes place in the 1980s, it could be happening right now. This story relates to everyone in some way. But beware – you might leave this show with a tear in your eye, and a soft spot in your heart.
Tony Gudell (Mendel):
Joel: What is Falsettos about?
Tony: To me it’s a play about family; about wanting and needing love, and refusing to let go of someone just because their relationship has changed.
Joel: Why did you want to play Mendel?
Tony: HA! At first I didn’t! I came into Falsettos reluctantly, after a five year hiatus from acting. I turned down the part three times – but Jeffrey wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
Joel: Would you go to a psychiatrist like Mendel who falls in love and marries his patient?
Tony: It certainly bends ethics, doesn’t it? Still I think this too propels the message of the play: do we resist what we want, even if it may be right for us, simply because it isn’t the norm? Or do we go for it – if our hearts are in the right place?
Joel: What is it about Trina that Mendel falls head-over-heels for her?
Tony: Her wrists! Seriously though, I think they are both sensitive, insecure people who are truly “good eggs.” It’s hard for people to stick their necks out and pursue a relationship. Mendel never married – and he is pushing 50. Trina is someone he feels attracted to and he feels has a fighting chance to actually win her affections.
Joel: Have you fallen head-over-heels with Lisa Carrier Baker who plays Trina?
Tony: I could tell you but her husband is much bigger than me and I’m just a little afraid of him. I’ve already been warned about the kissing and hugging on stage!
Joel: In March of the Falsettos, Mendel is a little kooky and breast-obsessed, and even needs Jason has to help him with his marriage proposal.
Tony: This is a guy who helps people with their emotions but has little experience with his own. He is like the sex-therapist in “Shortbus” that has never had an orgasm! Plus it is not surprising that Mendel learns a lot about love from Jason because Tony has learned a lot about acting from Noah!
Joel: Why is Mendel such an audience pleaser, and how do you relate to him?
Tony: Well, let’s face it, Mendel is an audience favorite because of the material. William Finn wrote wonderful songs for Mendel, from “Everyone Hates Their Parents”, to “Love is Blind”. It’s hard to go wrong with them. I can relate to him because I’m someone who has always been the Court Jester in the group, ever since my Dad died when I was four years old – and I developed a need to cheer people up. Plus it is really hard for me to get in touch with my emotions when not on stage – something I’m still working through.
Joel: How does Mendel change throughout Falsettos?
Tony: I think at first he is a little obsessed with Trina and what his life could be with her; how much better and happier he could be with an “instant” family – get it all with half the work. In the end he gets much more than he bargained for: A wife that perhaps married him to only feel safe, a son that turns into more of a friend and confidant, and an extended family he truly but surprisingly cares deeply for. All the time being surprised by the depth of emotion he feels; surprised because those emotions were for so long suppressed. I think he is truly surprised by what, and to what extend he actually “feels.”
Joel: What is Mendel and Jason’s relationship in March of the Falsettos and then in Falsettoland, and does it change?
Tony: Well, at first Jason is simply a means to get to Trina; he is using Jason to gain access to Trina: “The more I see Jason as his psychiatrist the more chances I will have to see his Mom.” In the end, though, a true bond develops between Mendel and Jason. Mendel becomes a true advocate for the boy; he speaks up for him and helps the boy through that trying time we all go through called adolescence. I think he sets out to find happiness in a wife but finds that his world is much richer because he has become a father too.
Joel: In Falsettoland you get to sing “Everyone Hates His Parents” with Noah. What is the song about from Mendel’s point of view, and what’s it like performing it with Noah?
Tony: Well, first off performing with that young man has enriched my life to no end. It is just great fun – Noah is so fearless on and off stage. He loves what he does and doesn’t second-guess himself as a performer and it is so refreshing to me. The song itself is another of Finn’s comments on humanity and so very true! At one time or another everyone DOES hate their parents! Mendel knows this because he lived through the same experience with his Bar-Mitzvah, as he says it still gives him hives!
Joel: How would you describe Noah’s performance? Anything surprise you about his performance?
Tony: Yes, a lot. I was a little worried about some of the subject matter but he is unflinching about it. He doesn’t seem to embarrass easily and he is always very “present” in a scene, just as he was in rehearsal. He was the first of all of us to have the material memorized. I think his portrayal of a 12 year old is absolutely true and without ego. He just “is” Jason. That is something every actor strives for but often finds so elusive. And the way he gets comedy is almost frightening. On stage and off, he is just someone you want to be around because he is so funny and intelligent.
Joel: Does Mendel change his view of Marvin in Falsettoland?
Tony: Yes, very much so In Act One you see Marvin as a pretty selfish person, almost to the point of being arrogant. In Act Two he is able to put others first and break through armor surrounding his heart. As he says, “It’s about growing up – leaning on a lover’s shoulder – realizing love is not a crime.”
Joel: What did director Jeffrey Johnson tell you about playing Mendel?
Tony: Jeffrey and I have known each other since we did Kerouac together at Studio about a dozen years ago. He saw me in the role before I even knew about it. I guess his biggest piece of advice was telling me to just get out of my own way; in many ways I am Mendel – I just needed to become more sensitive to the similarities between us.
Joel: You have worked at many theatres in the area including Signature, Olney, Shakespeare, American Century, Washington Stage Guild, among others. Why do you enjoy working in the DC Theatre community?
Tony: The camaraderie, the friendships – the LACK of backstabbing. I’m from N.Y. I was schooled there and started my career there. Here is my favorite D.C. theatre story: I was in a rehearsal studio on 54th street in NY taking down information about an upcoming audition that was posted on a bulletin board. Another actor came up to me and asked if I was finished taking down the info I needed and I said, Yes”, that I was. He then took the listing down off the bulletin board. I asked if the audition was now closed and he said, “No”, he just wanted to cut down on the competition.
Cut to my first audition in D.C., it was for Shakespeare Theatre. I was waiting to be seen and another actor started up a conversation with me, saying he didn’t recognize me. We spoke a bit then he took out a pencil and paper and gave me audition information on another show just because he thought I’d be so right for it! I love the D.C. theatre scene!
Joel: Which has been your favorite role so far in local productions, and which roles are you dying to play that you haven’t played before?
Tony: I really enjoyed playing Sergeant Match in What the Butler Saw at Signature. But then again, every role is my favorite while I’m playing it. Doing Sinatra at Wayside Theatre was a blast. I’ve always wanted to play Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, and John Adams in 1776.
Joel: What’s next for you after Falsettos?
Joel: Why is Falsettos still relevant 8 years after it opened on Broadway?
Tony: Because at the end of the day it is a story about family. About love and family – even when we think we don’t love our family! Anyone – anyone, whether you are 13 or 50 or 80 – can relate to this story.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave Noi’s Nook after seeing Falsettos?
Tony: Well, that’s a hard question to answer. I believe they will feel a little more connected to humanity – but, gosh, that sounds so haughty. Still, I think it’s true. There is nothing like live theatre when the story is universal and the audience can so directly connect to it. It’s a wonderfully symbionic relationship and it does bring us closer together.
Falsettos plays through October 10th at Ganymede Arts at Noi’s Nook at go mama go!, in Washington DC. For more information, directions, and to purchase tickets, click here.